It is a cold, blustery day in Virginia this Saturday. It is my busy season, so I’ve worked every weekend this month. God has, for reasons of His own, taken to giving us winter storms on the weekends so I couldn’t really go out anyway. It looks like this right now, leaving me to remember warmer days.
I know others have it much worse today, but that is not really any comfort.
As it happens, I had this post sitting in my drafts file. It is from my last kayaking trip for 2021. Henry County has many excellent programs for people over 50 and one of them is kayaking. Once a month, folks from the county office will take a group out on area lakes and rivers. In October, we went to see Calico Rock on Philpott Lake.
Calico Rock is, well, a little underwhelming. That is why this post was sitting in drafts in the first place. However, all things are relative and, right now, it is breathtaking to me. I feel extremely fortunate to live in a place where I can throw a kayak on top of my car (it actually takes me about 45 minutes to do that) and get out on the water.
I get the impression that Ryans Branch boat launch is not well known, even to locals. The ladies at the church didn’t know where it was and my cursory glimpse at Google Maps suggested that it was much further north. It turned out to be just a few minutes north of Fairy Stone Lake.
This trip was in late October and the leaves were still working on turning. The weather alternated between sunny and cloudy while we were out. When the sun came out, the leaves just seemed to snap with color … and then another cloud would come by.
To get to Calico Rock from the Ryans Branch launch, you turn right and go under the bridge. At the time of this trip, Google Maps had Calico Rock on the other side of the lake. It’s not. Trust me. Turn right and go under the bridge.
Then you just hug the shoreline. There are no turns needed. It is quite a ways back.
You’ll know that you are getting close when you see a house on the hill.
So, Calico Rock is – unless the fellow from the county was pulling our leg – really just a kind of rock face. I’m not really sure what I was expecting.
There is something to be said for scale though. The voice in the back of my head that thinks it knows obscure words keeps yelling “escarpment”. Is it? I don’t really know.
So, that was Calico Rock. You may be able to see why it stayed in drafts for the past three months. Now, in the dead of winter, you may enjoy it as I do … as proof of fun activities in better weather.
There are other sites to see from Ryans Launch, although I don’t know how you would see Blue Falls without scuba gear. According to the plaque, it is an “historic feature deep under the waters of the lake”. That leaves Emberson Falls. That sounds like a trip for 2022.
I hope everyone out there is safe and snug and, if not enjoying the winter weather, persisting.
In a few weeks, the forsythia will bloom. In less than six weeks, the leaves should start at least nubbing out on the trees. Winter, like all trying times, will pass.
When you are over by the dam, if you turn and look north up the lake, you can just barely make out the Blue Ridge Mountains peeking up on the far horizon. Philpott Lake covers 2900 acres and it is long and narrow(ish). It has 100 miles of shoreline.
Bowen Falls is not too far away from Philpott Marina but I found that out too late to try to go take a look. It’s nice to leave something for next time though. We spent our afternoon kayaking up one of the many little spines that branch away from the main channel of the lake.
The water is clear by Texas standards but I know that isn’t saying much. It isn’t crystal clear like I’ve seen in maybe Minnesota or Maine, but it is definitely not murky.
The shoreline is a little low. One of the county employees told me that the lake is about three feet down right now. You can see erosion along the shore line and the trees tip over and fall in if they lose enough soil.
This is great for fishing and two of the county’s chaperones brought out their fishing boat to drop a line in while keeping an eye on us. They were pros and very good about not creating a wake. Our group did get a little spread out as the afternoon went on and it was nice to know that they could respond to any issues quickly.
It was a beautiful day. We had a small group because there was a competing blood drive in the county and many of our kayaking ladies had volunteered to help with that.
Philpott Lake is a US Army Corps of Engineers lake and there is no development on it. In fact, the only marina on the lake where you can permanently moor a boat or buy gasoline on the water is Philpott Marina.
Philpott has requested to expand its slip rentals but the Corps has refused based on their location on the lake. There had been another marina up at Twin Ridge but it burned in 2000. That means that all boat traffic on Philpott Lake, with the exception of the handful of boats moored here, has to be trailered in and launched.
That doesn’t keep the lake from getting busy though. Besides Twin Ridge, I have yet to see other launches but the launch at Philpott Marina is very nice. It has the two accesses separated by a narrow dock. It also has a lot of parking for trailers. I started to take a picture but it’s a parking lot. Trust me. There is a lot of parking.
There are also campgrounds and a trail off by the side of the marina that leads to another parking lot and a fishing spot.
As fishing spots go, it would be good for the able-bodied fisherman. It’s a bit of a scramble to get down to the shoreline.
Philpott Marina is in a cluster of accesses. Right next to the marina is the observation deck where so many photos are taken of Philpott Lake. It is especially beautiful in the fall but I went there one fall day when it rained and it was incredible.
You can also get to the other side of the dam with another access. This is where you find the first access to Smith River for kayaks.
Class 1 to 3 rapids. I’m comfortable with class 1, a little nervous about class 2, and there’s no way I’m going on class 3 without a guide who’s done it before. The moving water is beautiful though.
There is plenty of parking and a well marked access.
There is a gate across the access that prevents a vehicle from getting down there. Since the strength of the river depends on how much water is let out from the dam, you need to call ahead before just setting out. I don’t know if the gate is an indication of whether or not it is okay to put in or if they just don’t want ordinary folks trying to back down the access.
That would be completely understandable though, since the access is narrow and a little rough.
At the bottom of the access, you are looking up at the dam and hearing the water being released. It is a little awe-inspiring.
I will leave you with this last photo that completely took me by surprise. There is a hiking trail that juts off from the kayak access and continues on along the shore of the river. The cool water being released by the dam was reacting with the warmer water in the river and a mist was rising up off of the surface. It was absolutely gorgeous.
I hope that this is something that always happens and I can get back and take some incredible shots of that.
It took me forty-five minutes to tie my new-to-me kayak to my car the morning of the Smith River Festival. But I did it. I got it attached to my car, got myself to the festival, had a WONDERFUL day, and got myself home in one piece.
The Smith River Festival is an annual festival here, held at the Smith River Sports Complex. It runs 10 to 4 and is packed with activities. There’s the Helgramite 5K Mud Run, a river race, free tubes provided for tubing, free shuttles for tubes and kayaks, a demo pool for trying out different kinds of kayaks or SUPs, a petting zoo, a yoga class, a beer garden, live music, and activities for kids to include bikes to ride, a climbing tower, and a bounce house. And then there’s a rubber duck race that I keep missing.
Timing is everything with the Smith River Festival. If you have a kayak, you can drive down to the river to drop it off and then park. If you are early enough, you can park close by. Otherwise you end up parking further and further away. By late morning, you have to park over by the soccer fields and take a shuttle to the festival.
I am always early. I arrived around 9:30, dropped off my kayak, and was able to park in the first row away from the demo pool . The down side to being early is that the festival itself – the tents, the music, even the bounce house – were still being set up.
I puttered around awhile and took some photos. It’s kind of nice to see a festival start taking shape.
There were so many activities. Tons. They really excelled at providing things to do.
One thing this is not is an artisan fare. There were military recruiters, some political tents, various organizations that wanted to get the word out about programs they had. There were a few individuals selling things that they had made, but not many. It’s not really that kind of festival. I was pleased to see our local bike shop, Chain of Fools, in attendance. As the weather cools off, I’ll stop by there for a post of its own.
There was one tent that really stood out though. That was largely because they would take a huge monitor lizard (wearing a cowboy hat) out for a walk or they would wrangle a rather large reticulating python.
Animal Control Officer Clark has been “in the news” (on Facebook) for rescuing a stray cat and fostering it for the Martinsville Henry County SPCA until a home can be found. Animals seem to really like him and this python was no exception. Every time they set it down, it sought him out.
They dipped the python in water to keep it cool. In the picture above, you can see that it still was making its way to Officer Clark. I think that they did a good job with the snakes. They were very careful about controlling their temperatures. In the picture below, they were taking the temperature of a jungle python.
But the real focus of Smith River Festival is the river. And about all the ways that you can enjoy the river. The Dan River Basin Association had a fantastic demo pool set up for trying different types of kayaks and paddle boards.
I finally got to try a sit-on-top kayak. Wouldn’t you know that it was a Liquidlogic. Dare I say that I’m in love again? The Liquidlogic Coupe XP runs $869 on their website right now. This is, at least, still less expensive than the others I’ve fallen in love with so far. However, the website says that it’s on backorder now.
The Helgramite Mud Run started at 11. I was anxious to get into the water but I really wanted to see the Mud Run get underway.
I got a good vantage point next to the starting line. All the runners shoes looked beautiful. Mine, I wear once and they look like I’ve been using them as yard shoes. They assured me that, no, they were old shoes. One racer even had his duct-taped to his feet.
The first pit is right at the start and it was fun to watch all those people lunge through the pit. I took over a dozen pictures (easily) and the rest are on the blog’s Facebook page.
Then it was time for what I had come for. I had a choice to go down a stretch that I had done before or go down a part that was new to me. The shuttle was free and would pick me up at the next launch down or even the one after that, if I wanted. I did want to. But, even at 11, there weren’t that many people lining up for a shuttle or on the water and I was worried about doing something new on water I didn’t know – by myself. It would probably be okay but I’m not a “probably” kind of person when it comes to drowning.
I chose the South Martinsville back to the Complex stretch. I thought I “knew” it.
I never regret time on the water and I was a fool to think that I knew this stretch. I had been down this run last year, when the water was so high that it was close to being too high for kayakers of my skill level to ride. I’m not going to see any rapids to speak of on this, I thought.
I ate my words quickly. There were rapids right after Rives Road. I watched two kayakers in front of me. The first went through on the left and motioned to the second, who blew off the instructions and went through the middle.
I approached. Tacked for the left. Got right up on it and frantically paddled out of it. I went through the middle and realized that I had underestimated this stretch. I forgot that the water had been very low until just recently. There were actually fewer rapids when the water was higher.
The rapids made the trip all the more interesting and enjoyable. I am getting braver with my camera too. Once through the rapids, several times I pulled back up to the rocks to get some close ups of the water rushing through. Only once did my camera get doused. But it survived.
Unlike when I was on the river before, I passed by a lot of people. Some in tubes. Some in kayaks. Some forming chains four, five, or six kayaks across, just drifting with the current and enjoying their company.
There’s a spot not far from the complex where you can see the Dick & Willie Passage Rail Trail following along the river. By this time, I was chatting with another couple of kayakers and one told me that they actually had to blast some rock here to make the path through.
And then, before I knew it, I was back at the complex. I could have kept going and I probably should have since there were so many people on the water now. But it had finally dawned on me that I was going to have to repeat my feat of getting the kayak back on top of the car before I could get home. It was now 2, the festival ended at 4, and I hadn’t had a chance to have a beer in the beer garden and relax.
In retrospect, I do wish that I had continued. For one thing, maybe I wouldn’t have forgotten about the rubber duck race.